Beyond Great Forces

How Individuals Still Shape History

Prince Charming: Mohammed bin Salman in London, March 2018 Alastair Grant / AP

History used to be told as the story of great men. Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, George Washington, Napoléon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong—individual leaders, both famous and infamous, were thought to drive events. But then it became fashionable to tell the same stories in terms of broader structural forces: raw calculations of national power, economic interdependence, or ideological waves. Leaders came to be seen as just vehicles for other, more important factors, their personalities and predilections essentially irrelevant. What mattered was not great men or women but great forces.

In his 1959 classic, Man, the State, and War, the scholar Kenneth Waltz made the case for this new approach. He argued that focusing on individual leaders or human nature more broadly offered little purchase when it came to understanding global politics. Instead, one should look at the framework of the international system and the distribution of power across

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